On the Vice of Impurity
by Saint Alphonsus Liguori
The unchaste, then, say that sins contrary to purity are but a small evil. Like "the sow . . . wallowing in the mire" (2Peter 2:22), they are immersed in their own filth, so that they do not see the malice of their actions; and therefore they neither feel nor abhor the stench of their impurities, which excite disgust and horror in all others. Can you, who say that the vice of impurity is but a small evil - can you, I ask, deny that it is a mortal sin? If you deny it, you are a heretic; for as Saint Paul says, "Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God" - 1Corinthians 9-10. It is a mortal sin; it cannot be a small evil. It is more sinful than theft, or detraction, or the violation of the fast. How then can you say that it is not a great evil? Perhaps mortal sin appears to you to be a small evil? Is it a small evil to despise the grace of God, to turn your back on Him, and to lose His friendship, for a transitory, beastly pleasure?
Saint Thomas teaches that mortal sin, because it is an insult offered to an infinite God, contains a certain infinitude of malice. "A sin committed against God, has a certain infinitude, on account of the infinitude of Divine Majesty" - Saint Thomas. Is mortal sin a small evil? It is so great an evil, that if all the angels and all the saints, the apostles, martyrs, and even the Mother of God, offered all their merits to atone for a single mortal sin, the oblation would not be sufficient. No, for that atonement or satisfaction would be finite; but the debt contracted by mortal sin is infinite, on account of the infinite majesty of God, which has been offended. The hatred which God bears to sins against purity is great beyond measure. If a lady find her plate soiled, she is disgusted, and cannot eat. Now with what disgust and indignation must God, Who is purity itself, behold the filthy impurities by which His law is violated? He loves purity with an infinite love; and consequently He has has an infinite hatred for the sensuality which the lewd, voluptuous man calls a small evil. Even the devils who held a high rank in Heaven before their fall, disdain to tempt men to sins of the flesh.
Saint Thomas says, that Lucifer, who is supposed to have been the Devil that tempted Jesus Christ in the desert, tempted Him to commit other sins, but scorned to tempt Him to offend against chastity. Is this sin a small evil? Is it then a small evil to see a man endowed with a rational soul, and enriched with so many divine graces, bring himself, by the sin of impurity, to the level of a brute? "Fornication and pleasure", says Saint Jerome, "pervert the understanding, and change men into beasts". In the voluptuous and unchaste, are literally verified the words of David: "And man when he was in honor did not understand; he is compared to senseless beasts, and is become like to them" - Psalm 48:13. Saint Jerome says, that there is nothing more vile or degrading, than to allow oneself to be conquered by the flesh. "Nihil vilius quam vinci a carne". Is it a small evil to forget God, and to banish Him from the soul, for the sake of giving the body a vile satisfaction, of which, when it is over, you feel ashamed? Of this the Lord complains by the Prophet Ezekiel, "Therefore thus saith the Lord God: Because thou hast forgotten Me, and hast cast Me off behind thy back, bear thou also thy wickedness, and thy fornications" - Ezekiel 23:35. Saint Thomas says, that by every vice, but particularly by the vice of impurity, men are removed far from God. "Per luxuriam maxime recedit a Deo".
Moreover, sins of impurity, on account of their great number, are an immense evil. A blasphemer does not always blaspheme, but only when he is drunk, or provoked to anger. The assassin, whose trade is to murder others, does not, at the most commit more than eight or ten homicides. But the unchaste are guilty of an unceasing torrent of sins, by thoughts, by words, by looks, by complacencies, and by touches; so that, when they go to confession, they find it impossible to tell the number of the sins they have committed against purity. Even in their sleep, the Devil represents to them obscene objects, that on waking, they may take delight in them; and because they are made the slaves of the enemy, they obey and consent to his suggestions; for it is easy to contract a habit of this sin. To other sins, such as blasphemy, detraction, and murder, men are not prone; but to this vice, nature inclines them. Hence Saint Thomas says, that there is no sinner so ready to offend God, as the votary of lust is, on every occasion that occurs to him. "Nullus ad Dei contemptum promptior". The sin of impurity brings in its train the sins of defamation, of theft, hatred, and of boasting of its filthy abominations. Besides, it ordinarily involves the malice of scandal. Other sins, such as blasphemy, perjury, and murder, excite horror in those who witness them; but this sin excites others, who are flesh, to commit it, or at least, to commit it with less horror.
"Totum hominem", says Saint Cyprian, "agit in triumphum libidinis". By lust the Devil triumphs over the entire man, over his body and over his soul; over his memory, filling it with the remembrance of unchaste delights, in order to make him take complacency in them; over his intellect, to make him desire occasions of committing sin; over the will, by making it love its impurities as his last end, and as if there were no God. "I made a covenant with my eyes, that I would not so much as think upon a virgin. For what part should God from above have in me" - Job 31:1-2. Job was afraid to look at a virgin; because he knew that if he consented to a bad thought, God should have no part in him. According to Saint Gregory, from impurity arises blindness of understanding, destruction, hatred of God, and despair of eternal life. Saint Augustine says that though the unchaste may grow old, the vice of impurity does not grow old in him. Hence Saint Thomas says that there is no sin in which the Devil delights so much as in this sin; because there is no other sin to which nature clings with so much tenacity. To the vice of impurity it adheres so firmly, that the appetite for carnal pleasures becomes insatiable. Go now, and say that the sin of impurity is but a small evil. At the hour of death you shall not say so; every sin of that kind shall then appear to you a monster of Hell. Much less, shall you say so before the Judgement-Seat of Jesus Christ, Who will tell you what the Apostle has already told you, "No fornicator, or unclean . . . hath inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God" - Ephesians 5:5. The man who has lived like a brute, does not deserve to sit with the angels.
Most beloved brethren, let us continue to pray to God to deliver us from this vice; if we do not, we shall lose our souls. The sin of impurity brings with it blindness and obstinacy. Every vice produces darkness of understanding; but impurity produces it in a greater degree than all other sins. "Fornication, and wine, and drunkenness, take away the understanding" - Hosea 4:11. Wine deprives us of understanding and reason; so does impurity. Hence Saint Thomas says that the man who indulges in unchaste pleasures, does not live according to reason. "In nullo procedit secundum judicium rationis". Now if the unchaste are deprived of light, and no longer see the evil which they do, how can they abhor it, and amend their lives? The Prophet Hosea says, that being blinded by their own mire, they do not even think of returning to God; because their impurities take away from them all knowledge of God. "They will not set their thoughts to return to their God: for the spirit of fornication is in the midst of them, and they have not known the Lord" - Hosea 5:4. Hence Saint Lawrence Justinian writes, that this sin makes men forget God. "Delights of the flesh induce forgetfulness of God". And Saint John Damascene teaches, that "the carnal man cannot look at the light of truth". Thus, the lewd and voluptuous no longer understand what is meant by the grace of God, by judgement, Hell, and eternity. "Fire hath fallen on them, and they shall not see the sun" - Psalm 57:9. Some of these blind miscreants go so far as to say, that fornication is not in itself sinful. They say, that it was not forbidden in the Old Law; and in support of this execrable doctrine, they adduce the words of the Lord to Hosea, "Go, take thee a wife of fornications, and have of her children of fornications" - Hosea 1:2. In answer I say, that God did not permit Hosea to commit fornication; but wished him to take for his wife a woman who had had been guilty of fornication; and the children of this marriage were called children of fornication, because the mother had been guilty of that crime. This is, according to Saint Jerome, the meaning of the words of the Lord to Hosea. "Idcirco", says the holy doctor, "fornicationis appellandi sunt filii, quod sunt de meretrice generati". But fornication was always forbidden, under pain of mortal sin, in the Old, as well as the New Law. Saint Paul says, "No fornicator, or unclean . . . hath inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God" - Ephesians 5:5. Behold the impiety to which the blindness of such sinners carries them! From this blindness it arises, that, though they go to the sacraments, their confessions are null for want of true contrition; for how is it possible for them to have true sorrow, when they neither know nor abhor their sins?
The vice of impurity also brings with it obstinacy. To conquer temptations, particularly against chastity, continual prayer is necessary. "Watch ye, and pray that you enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" - Mark 14:38. But how will the unchaste, who are always seeking to be tempted, pray to God to deliver them from temptation? They sometimes, as Saint Augustine confessed of himself, even abstain from prayer, through fear of being heard and cured of the disease, which they wish to continue. "I feared", said the saint, "that you would soon hear and heal the sin of concupiscence, which I wished to be satiated, rather than extinguished". Saint Peter calls this vice an unceasing sin. "Having eyes full of adultery and of sin that ceaseth not" - 2Peter 2:14. Impurity is called an unceasing sin on account of the obstinacy which it induces. Some persons addicted to this vice say: I always confess the sin. So much the worse; for, since you always relapse into the sin, these confessions serve to make you persevere in the sin. The fear of punishment is diminished by saying: I always confess the sin. If you felt that this sin certainly merits Hell, you would scarcely say: I will not give it up; I do not care if I am damned. But the Devil deceives you. Commit this sin, he says; for you afterwards confess it. But to make a good confession of your sins, you must have true sorrow of the heart, and a firm purpose to sin no more. Where are this sorrow and this firm purpose of amendment, when you always return to the vomit? If you had had these dispositions, and had received sanctifying grace at your confessions, you should not have relapsed, or at least you should have abstained for a considerable time from relapsing. You have always fallen back into sin in eight or ten days, and perhaps in a shorter time, after confession. What sign is this? It is a sign that you were always in enmity with God. If a sick man instantly vomits the medicine which he takes, it is a sign that his disease is incurable.
Saint Jerome says, that the vice of impurity, when habitual, will cease when the unhappy man who indulges in it, is cast into the fire of Hell. "O infernal fire, lust, whose fuel is gluttony, whose sparks are brief conversations, whose end is Hell". The unchaste become like the vulture that waits to be killed by the fowler, rather than abandon the rottenness of the dead bodies on which it feeds. This is what happened to a young female, who, after having lived in the habit of sin with a young man, fell sick, and appeared to be converted. At the hour of death, she asked leave of her confessor to send for the young man, in order to exhort him to change his life at the sight of her death. The confessor very imprudently gave the permission, and taught her what she should say to her accomplice in sin. But listen to what happened. As soon as she saw him, she forgot her promise to the confessor and the exhortation she was to give to the young man. And what did she do? She raised herself up, sat in the bed, stretched her arms to him, and said: Friend, I have always loved you, and even now, at the end of my life, I love you; I see that on your account I shall go to Hell, but I do not care; I am willing, for the love of you, to be damned. After these words, she fell back on the bed and expired. These facts are related by Father Segneri. Oh! how difficult is it for a person who has contracted a habit of this vice, to amend his life and return sincerely to God! how difficult is it for him not to terminate this habit in Hell, like the unfortunate young woman of whom I have just spoken.
The votaries of lust say that God takes pity on this sin; but such is not the language of Saint Thomas of Villanova. He says that in the sacred Scriptures we do not read of any sin so severely chastised as the sin of impurity. "Luxuriae facinus prae aliis punitum legimus" - Sermon 4. We find in the Scriptures, that in punishment of this sin, a deluge of fire descended from Heaven on four cities, and in an instant, consumed not only the inhabitants, but even the very stones. "And the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrha brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven. And He destroyed these cities, and all the country about, all the inhabitants of the cities, and all things that spring from the earth" - Genesis 19:24-25. Saint Peter Damian relates that a man and woman who had sinned against purity, were found burnt and black as a cinder.
Salvian writes that it was in punishment of the sin of impurity that God sent on the Earth the universal deluge, which was caused by continued rain for forty days and forty nights. In this deluge, the waters rose fifteen cubits above the tops of the highest mountains; and only eight persons along with Noah were saved in the ark. The rest of the inhabitants of the Earth, who were more numerous then than at present, were punished with death in chastisement of the vice of impurity. Mark the words of the Lord in speaking of this chastisement which He inflicted on that sin. "My Spirit shall not remain in man forever, because he is flesh" - Genesis 6:3. "That is", says Liranus, "too deeply involved in carnal sins". The Lord added, "For it repenteth Me that I have made them" - Genesis 6:7. The indignation of God is not like ours, which clouds the mind, and drives us into excesses; His wrath is a judgment perfectly just and tranquil, by which God punishes and repairs the disorders of sin. But to make us understand the intensity of His hatred for the sin of impurity, He represents Himself as if sorry for having created man, who offended Him so grievously by this vice. We, at the present day, see more severe temporal punishment inflicted on this, than on any other sin. Go into the hospitals, and listen to the shrieks of so many young men, who, in punishment of their impurities, are obliged to submit to the severest treatment and to the most painful operations, and who, if they escape death, are, according to the divine threat, feeble, and subject to the most excruciating pain for the remainder of their lives. "Because thou hast forgotten Me, and hast cast Me off behind thy back, bear thou also thy wickedness, and thy fornications" - Ezekiel 23:35.
Saint Remigius writes, that if children be excepted, the number of adults that are saved, is few, on account of the sins of the flesh. "Exceptis parvulis ex adultis propter vitiam carnis pauci salvantur". In conformity with this doctrine, it was revealed to a holy soul, that as pride has filled Hell with devils, so impurity fills it with men. Saint Isidore assigns this reason. He says that there is no vice which so much enslaves men to the Devil as impurity. "Magis per luxuriam, humanum genus subditur diabolo, quam per aliquod aliud" - Saint Isidore. Hence Saint Augustine says, that with regard to this sin, the combat is common, and the victory rare. Hence it is that on account of this sin, Hell is filled with souls.
All that I have said on this subject, has been said, not that anyone present, who has been addicted to the vice of impurity, may be driven to despair, but that such persons may be cured. Let us then come to the remedies. There are two great remedies; prayer and the flight of dangerous occasions. Prayer, says Saint Gregory of Nyssa, is the safeguard of Chastity. "Oratio pudicitiae praesidium et tutamen est". And before him, Solomon, speaking of himself, said the same. "And as I knew that I could not otherwise be continent, except God gave it, . . . I went to the Lord, and besought Him" - Wisdom 8:21. Thus it is impossible for us to conquer this vice without God's assistance. Hence, as soon as a temptation against chastity presents itself, the remedy is to turn instantly to God for help, and to repeat several times the most holy names of Jesus and Mary, which have a special virtue to banish bad thoughts of that kind. I have said immediately, without listening to, or beginning to argue with the temptation. When a bad thought occurs in the mind, it is necessary to shake it off instantly, as you would a spark that flies from the fire, and instantly to invoke aid from Jesus and Mary.
As to the flight of dangerous occasions, Saint Philip Neri used to say, that cowards - that is, they who fly from the occasions - gain the victory. Hence, you must, in the first place, keep a restraint on the eyes, and must abstain from looking at young females. Otherwise, says Saint Thomas, you can scarcely avoid this sin. Hence Job said: "I made a covenant with my eyes, that I would not so much as think upon a virgin" - Job 31:1. He was afraid to look at a virgin; because from looks it is easy to pass to desires, and from desires to acts. Saint Francis de Sales used to say, that to look at a woman does not do so much evil, as to look at her a second time. If the Devil has not gained a victory the first, he will gain it the second time. And if it be necessary to abstain from looking at females, it is much more necessary to avoid conversation with them. "Tarry not among women" - Ecclesiasticus 42:12. We should be persuaded that, in avoiding occasions of this sin, no caution can be too great. Hence we must be always fearful, and fly from them. "A wise man feareth, and declineth from evil: the fool leapeth over, and is confident" - Proverbs 14:16. A wise man is timid, and flies away; a fool is confident, and falls.